Monday, May 12, 2014

PSPG hits the streets to explain how genes make us who we are

           With help from the University of Pennsylvania and GAPSA, PSPG was able to run a volunteer booth at the Philly Science Carnival on May 3rd. The carnival was part of the annual 9-day Philly Science Festival which provides informal science educational experiences throughout Philadelphia’s many neighborhoods. The title of the PSPG exhibit was “Who owns your genes?” and featured activities for children and adults alike to educate visitors about how genes make us who we are, what we can and cannot learn from personalized genomics services like 23andMe, and how several biotech companies have attempted to patent specific genes.
           Kids learned how genes act as the instructions for building an organism by drawing alleles for different traits out of a hat and using the genotype to decide how to put together a “monster.” In so doing, they were exposed to the basic principles of genetics (dominant vs. recessive alleles, complete vs. incomplete dominance, and codominance), and they got to leave with a cute pipe-cleaner monster too.
           For our older visitors we presented actual results from a 23andMe single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) report generously provided by one of our own members (advocacy coordinator Mike Convente). This part of the exhibit walked visitors through the process of sequencing for SNPs, which are single nucleotide bases that vary widely between individuals and can give hints about ancestry, physical traits and possibly diseases, and the implications of bringing these types of tests to the general public. Right now the Food and Drug Administration is trying to figure out how to regulate services like these, which provide genetic information directly to consumers without a qualified middle-man (such as a doctor or geneticist) to explain the complicated results.
           Our exhibit also featured a section entitled “How Myriad Genetics Almost Owned Your Genes” which highlighted the recent Supreme Court case brought against a biotech company that wished to patent two genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) involved in the development of breast cancer. The genes were discovered at the University of Utah in a lab run by Mark Skolnick, who subsequently founded Myriad Genetics. Myriad went on to develop a high-throughput sequencing assay to test patients for breast cancer susceptibility and eventually obtained patents for both genes. This was controversial for several reasons: 1. These genes exist in nature in every human being and are not an invention; 2. The genes were originally discovered with public funding; and 3. Myriad had a monopoly on testing for BRCA mutations and prevented universities and hospitals from offering the tests. Last year in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, several medical associations, doctors and patients sued Myriad to challenge the patents and the Supreme Court decided that patenting naturally occurring genes is unconstitutional (however synthetically-made complementary DNA is still eligible for patenting). It is likely that the patenting of DNA sequences will continue to be an issue in the future considering recent advances in the field of synthetic biology.